Early & Silent Film

Just another WordPress.com weblog

Archive for the ‘Italian film’ Category

Carbon Arc at the 2018 Il Cinema Ritrovato

Posted by keith1942 on July 5, 2018

One of the real pleasures at this archive festival are the screening sin the Piazzetta Pasolini sourced from 35mm prints and projected from a 1930s Prevost 35mm carbon arc machine. There is always a great moment when the projectionist ‘fires up’ the machine and a shaft of light beams upwards into the night sky. The Piazzetta is full of light and shadows and then the image appears on the screen. This rare pleasure fills the courtyard with people, early ones sitting, later ones standing or using makeshift furniture.

This year we had three evening screening, attesting to the growing popularity of the event. The screening were part of a retrospective to the work of the cinema of Naples and the film-maker Elvira Notari. With her husband Nicola, and their company Dora Films, she was an important producer and director in Neapolitan silent cinema, working from 1910 right into the 1920s. Only three films and fragments survive from her output of about sixty films. The programme was also a tribute to Vittorio Martinelli who died ten years ago, a passionate student and writer on these films. As in earlier festivals the titles were accompanied by Neapolitan musicians. Making the events event a glorious brew of film, colour and music.

The opening event offered three films accompanied by Antonella Monetti (voice and accordion] and Michele Signore [violin and mandolin], a duo who had accompanied the films when they were screened at an earlier retrospective in Frankfurt. Antonella and Michele regularly accompany Neapolitan films and arrange the music, including traditional Neapolitan songs. We enjoyed the main feature Un Amore selvaggio (19120 which had fine tinting beautifully illuminated by the carbon arc light. The film is a rural drama about class conflict, involving a brother and sister who are increasingly at odds with the landowner for whom they work. There were two compilations of sequences from films by Notari which do not survive in a complete form. These were L’Italia s’è desta (1927) and Fantasia ‘e surdato (1927).

The second event offered a single title, a French film made by an a Russian émigré in Naples in 1925, Naples au Baiser de feu. The accompaniment was by Guido Sodo [Mandolin and voice] and François Laurent [], a duo I have heard before with pleasure. The film followed the doomed romance of a popular singer of the city, but whose life style inhibits his commercial success. The object of his desire is a bourgeois young woman who suffers from a frail constitution. The plot-line, which included a poor girl’s equivalent obsession for the singer, was conventional but done with aplomb. And the film intercut many sequences filmed in the city, including a major festivity. This was tangential to the story but presented Neapolitan life with interest.

I missed the third screening but a friend who attended said that he thought the film fine and really enjoyed the musical accompaniment. The films ere both title by Notari, Napoli sirena delle canzoni (1929) and ‘A Santanotte (1922). The musicians were a five-piece group E Zézi Gruppo Operaio. ‘A Santanotte was another melodrama in a print with the original colours reproduced.

In the 1990s there were several years where we had Neapolitan films with live music in one of the Cortile that are in a Palacio around the Pizza Maggiore.. I remember them vividly now and I am sure that will be true of these events in the Piazzetta. The only experience to rival it is the equally rare opportunity of watching surviving nitrate prints.

Advertisements

Posted in Italian film | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Prospecting for Gold / Sulla Via Dell’Oro [aka The Human Bridge], Italy 1913.

Posted by keith1942 on March 28, 2018

This was a two-reel film screened as part of the programme ‘Beginnings of the Western’ at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto and focussing on European productions. It was made at Cines and the director was [probably] Baldassarre Negroni.

“This story of a disrupted romance and a gold claim that provokes a bitter family feud is set in a landscape that is perfect for lots of horseback riding – often dry and flat, sometimes hilly and rocky, and at one crucial point marked by high cliffs.” Richard Abel in the Giornate Catalogue.

|The two families are the Sampson and the Woods. Sat the start of the film John Wood (Amleto Novelli) is sweet on Kate Sampson (Hesperia). In a reverse gold-digging role he spurns her when he realises that her family is poor. The tables are turned when Kate’s brother Sam (uncredited actor) finds a gold seam and stakes a claim. Instead of renewing his wooing John and his family attempt to take the find by force. They fire the Sampson buildings and then size Kate and her father (Ignazio Lupi). However, Sam first shoots John’s sister Lea and then nurses her. In gratitude she allows Kate and her father to escape.

The pursuit by the Woods leads us to the high cliffs and a spectacular sequence where one of the Sampson’s forms a human bridge over a chasm so they can escape. The climax of the film is a duel between John and Sam. A remore3wsful John has the opportunity to shoot Sam but desists. In an unexpected ending John and Kate again form a couple as do Lea and Sam.

This is clearly full-blooded melodrama. The extreme sequence is when the Woods attempt to discover the whereabouts of the claim by burying Kate and her father up to their necks in sand. But father and daughter refuse to divulge the secret. The ambush of the couple has the film under-cranked to heighten the speed of the sequence.

The cinematography makes fine use of the settings. The ‘human bridge’ sequence is filmed in long shot and presented as silhouette: with Sam and one other forming the bridge over which father an, mother and daughter crawl to safety. The film also make excellent use of tinting. The fire of the Sampson’s house is tinted red, adding to the drama. Only the final reconciliation and the newly formed new couples seems somewhat far-fetched.

We enjoyed a 35mm print from the Desmet Collection at the EYE Filmmuseum. The Dutch titles were provided with a translation and Donald Sosin accompanied the drama at the piano.

Posted in Italian film, Westerns | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Il Fiacre N.13 / Cab no. 13, Italy 1917.

Posted by keith1942 on December 21, 2017

This film was screened in the ‘Cineteca Italiano 70’ programme at the 2017 Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. This was a series in four episodes, running for a total of 170 minutes. Carlo Montanaro, in the Catalogue, provided some background.

“Not many Italian silent films structured in episodes have survived, though a good many were made … Most of them were based on foreign models, particularly French, and some were direct reworkings. One such case is Il Fiacre . 13, from the novel of the same title by Xavier Henri Aymon Perrin, Count of Montépin,  a highly prolific and much-loved author whose books were vehicles for the depiction of social inequality, narrating stories of love, death, betrayal, blackmail and redemption.”

The film certainly fitted this description. It bore a strong resemblance to the plotting of the classic French serials of the teens. The villains were affluent and/or aristocratic. However, the issue of social inequality was limited as the characters were divided into virtuous and evil rather than representing classes as such.

Episode One – Il delitto al Ponte di Neuilly / Murder at the Neuilly Bridge

This first in the series was banned in Italy but seen abroad. Presumably a story in which someone is falsely charged, found guilty and guillotined was felt to question ‘legitimate’ authority. In this episode we meet key characters, Duke George de Latour (Vasco Creti), whose devious plans and actions in order to obtain the family estate and fortune motivate most of the action. Claudia Varny (Elena Makowska) assists George: she is the most interesting and dynamic character in the film. As interesting in many ways is Gion Giovedi (Alberto A. Capozzi, also co-director), an Apache, a member of a violent criminal underworld and a stock character in silent films. And there is the coachman who drives the fatal cab, (Umberto Scapellini).

Episode Two – Gion Giovedi.

An innocent man is sent to the guillotine for a murder at the bridge where, unbeknown at the time, a baby is kidnapped. These events intertwine with the ducal fortune and, in particular, the machinations by Claudia. The  murder and the kidnapping remain the central events propelling action and investigation throughout the series.

There are numerous development and new characters. Most importantly we meet Berta, the daughter of the innocent victim of the guillotine, and in a powerful sequence she swears vengeance on his tomb. We meet a young doctor, Etienne, who will be an important link between characters, including René. The latter, a friend of one victim visits the cemetery to inspect the mausoleum to the deceased Duke and meets Berta and thus  becomes an investigator into the crimes.

Episode Three – La filial del ghigliottinato / The Daughter of the Guillotined Man.

Carlo Montanaro describes this as

“the grimmest episode, where evil seems to prevail …”

It was also the shortest episode. As the crimes of George and Claudia start to come to light Berta is kidnapped to prevent exposure. Meanwhile René inveigles himself into Claudia’s villa. At a grandiose party he uses a theatrical tableaux to confront Claudia with her past. A really dramtic sequence.

Episode Four – Giustizia! / Justice.

The title tells all, but the drama continues. Berta is rescued from a burning house. Characters’ past and their hidden family relationships are revealed. The virtuous are rewarded and the wrongdoers punished. The latter offers a slight ambiguity. The nemesis of Claudia develops real pathos a she is parted from a beloved daughter.

Montanaro comments on the overall plot:

“the narrative is an unending series of dramatic revelations where events are carefully illustrated and explained by intertitles, which, as with all the films of this type, bear witness to the style of the material’s direct literary origins.”

So despite the numerous and dramatic changes and turns of events in the film I was never lost in the development of the plot. Rather as with other literary works, [e.g. ‘Jane Eyre] ‘ the long arm of co-incidence is stretched to the point of dislocation ‘. There are a number of flashbacks filling in plot information. And numerous conventional tropes: apart from tableaux’s, fires, kidnapping, secret assignations., a cemetery: there are  overheard plots in bars, a duel, incriminating letters, important paintings, hidden documents, and significant jewels.

As Montanaro also notes much of the power of the film derives from the performances, especially those of Alberto Capozzi as Gion Giovedi and Elena Makowska as Claudia. I also thought that their characters were the most interesting in the script. Gigetta Morano plays Berta, and she is the most charismatic of the virtuous characters.

The film has a range of settings: some of the interiors are sumptuous but it was the smaller scale sets and some of the exteriors that struck me as particularly well done. The cinematography by Giovanni Vitrotti is a key contributor to the generally fine visual presentation. There are often interesting camera angles, especially high angle shots looking down on characters. And there are some excellent tracking shots for the period. The film has a lot of effective tinting.

In all we had 3,500 metres of 35mm at 18 fps. This film was screened in two parts. Donald Sosin provided the accompaniment for Episodes one and two and Mauro Colombis provided the accompaniment for Episodes three and four

 

Posted in Italian film, Literary adaptation | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

William Shakespeare by Film d’Arte Italiana

Posted by keith1942 on December 1, 2016

Lear and his fool.

Lear and his fool.

This was a programme of three early adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays by the Italian studio. The company was founded by Pathé and was a parallel to the French Film d’Art. These were the years when film entrepreneurs were aiming to extend audiences to the bourgeois classes. Classic works such as Shakespeare offered a cachet for this potential audience: there was the added advantage that the works were out of copyright. The Festival Catalogue notes that as the Italian company did not yet have a silent stage for film work and so the productions were filmed in the open air and

“open-air sequences filmed in real places became a distinctive hall mark of their productions.” (Luciano Di Giusti).

The films are short by modern standards and do not all survive in full-length versions. What was offered was a series of key scenes with title cards describing the plot: presumably this relied on a certain audience acquaintance with the original. At this stage of the industry the cinematography relied on a static camera filming entire scenes in one long take. So there is a tableaux feel to the staging, though there are occasional mid-shots and at time the depth of field offers more dynamic action.

The films also used the Pathé stencil colour techniques. This was applied manually by women workers. Different colours were applied as tints to different areas of the frame. The work relied to a degree on pastel shades, so the colours are not as saturated as with hand-painting. But they add to distinctiveness to the frames and offer a more vibrant image.

The key filmmaker, who directed two and most likely supervised the third film, is Gerolamo Lo Savio. At this stage in the industry credits for the various craft people are minimal. The third film is credited to Ugo Faleno, a playwright recruited to Film s’Arte Italiana. Perhaps he was responsible for the scripts for the films.

The productions were constructed around notable stage performers, another attraction for the more affluent audience. Thus in two of the films screened the lead was Ermete Novelli. He was a major theatrical star in the late C19th and early 1900s. By the time of these films he was in his 60s. And he mainly recreates his theatrical performance rather than trying a different techniques for film.  For me the more interesting actor in the films is Francesca Bertini.  Only 18 at this stage Bertini had started in theatre. She went on to become one of the major stars and ‘divas’ of Italian cinema. Her performances, even here, show her developing a specific cinematic technique.

Re Lear / King Lear, 1910. 293 metres, original 325 metres.

The film uses eight settings that present the key sequences from the play: including Lear’s original disastrous judgement against Cordelia: his misuse and abuse by his heirs: and the tragedy of first the death of Cordelia and then his own. The final scenes offer a greater depth of field with the location adding to the drama. Novelli is rather stilted and not all of Bertini’s playing survives.

Shylock

Shylock

Il Mercante di Venezia / The Merchant of Venice, 1910. 169 metres, original 270 metres.

This film is also set out in eight sequences, the key scenes from the play. However, even less of the original survives in this version, so important points like the way that Portia’s plans that develop the drama are unclear. The Venice settings, interspersed between studio sets, enhance the treatment. Novelli is a stereotypical Shylock but particularly effective in the courtroom sequence. However, Portia is played Olga Giannini Novelli, apparently Ermete’s wife. She was also in Re Lear, but this is a substantial role and she seems miscast.

Romeo e Giulietta / Romeo and Juliet, 1912. 680 metres.

This is the longest of the adaptations and is complete. The film uses a number of close-ups which increases the dramatic effect. As with the other films we are presented with a series of key scenes that trace the tragedy of the young lovers. Bertini plays Juliet opposite Gustavo Serena as Romeo, an actor who played alongside her in number of films. They are mature lovers rather than teenagers but very effective in their passion and in their final traumas.

The two earlier films were 35mm prints from the BFI National Film Archive with English title cards. Both ran at 16 fps. I was rather puzzled that neither of these appeared to have been screened in the celebrations of Shakespeare in the UK. The third print was from the EYE Filmmuseum with Dutch title cards. It ran slightly faster at 16 fps. Mauro Columbis provided piano accompaniment for all three, suiting the music to the different tones of the films.

Posted in Festivals, Italian film | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

The Nitrate Picture Show 2016

Posted by keith1942 on May 26, 2016

The Dryden Theatre, George Eastman House.

The Dryden Theatre, George Eastman House.

The was the second Festival of Nitrate film prints at the George Eastman House in New York State. Friends who went to the first had tantalised me with comments about the quality of the films on the now out-dated film stock. In particular they had referred to Ingrid Bergman’s tear in a scene from Casablanca, USA 1942. Nitrate films have a particular luminosity, especially noticeable when the lighting is accentuated. Nitrate film is rarely seen now as there are all sorts of safety precautions that have to be in place. The material is highly flammable and can even explode.

Seeing nitrate is an uncommon pleasure. In the UK only the National Film Theatre is equipped and licensed to project to nitrate films: and such screenings are increasingly rare. The George Eastman House in Rochester USA is a famed venue. So the three days of screenings in May was like the site of the Holy Grail for film lovers. About 500 people turned up, from all over the USA, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe and Latin America.

This would seem to have been a mammoth project. The assembled prints came from archives in many places. And the talented team at the George Eastman had to check, prepare and ensure that the films were ready for screenings. One particular problem is the rate of shrinkage. It seems that if it goes above 1% of the print it difficult or impossible to screen. The projection equipment includes two Century Model C projectors fitted with xenon lamps.

All the films were screened in the Dryden Theatre. This is well appointed, seating about 500. The sightlines all over the auditorium appear good, though the rear seats are some distance from the screen, making it difficult to fully appreciate the fine detail of films.

The programme commenced on Friday evening with Nitrate Shorts.

Object Lesson US 1941, Anthology Film Archive. This was a ten minute black and white ‘surrealist film ‘ with an environmental concern.

Cent Ans de Chemins de Fer Suisses Switzerland 1946, Cinémathèque suisse. The is an animated celebration of Swiss railways in glorious colour.

Jolly Little Elves USA 1934, Museum of Modern Art. Another animation in two-strip Technicolor. The Elves were altruistic and engaging.

Twenty Years of Academy Awards USA 1948, Academy Film Archive. This was a compilation of Award winning film’s extract, variable quality.

The Art Director US 1947, Academy Film Archive. This was an 8 minute Academy film on the title role. There was a variety of film extracts, an interesting selection.

The Golden State USA 1948, Academy Film Archive. A Technicolor paean to California, with the audience invited to join in “California Here I Come”.

Enamorada

Enamorada between María Félix and Pedro Armendáriz .

Then we moved on to the Festival features. I had seen all of these before so I was able to compare the quality of acetate 35mm and nitrate 35mm. The first feature was a Mexican film, Enamorada from 1946, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. The film was directed by Emilio Fernández and filmed by Gabriel Figueroa: the lighting one of the great cinematographers. This was a really good print which showed off to great effect the fine cinematography of Figueroa.

The final film of the evening was Otto Preminger’s Laura 1944, Academy Film Archive. The print screened was the pre-release version but I could not spot the additional footage. The nitrate print did not seem to look very different from the acetate 35mm prints that I have seen before.

Saturday kicked off with the Technicolor musical Annie Get Your Gun, USA 1950, Library of Congress. This was filmed by the veteran Charles Rusher and has really good Technicolor. But I did not think the nitrate print was superior to ordinary 35mm.

The we had the British Brighton Rock , UK 1947, British Film Institute. The film looks really good and makes excellent use of location filming. Harry Waxman’s cinematography is really fine and there are some great sequences in chiaroscuro. The nitrate print showed up these qualities really well and it was a pleasure to watch from start to finish.

Our next feature was Ladri di Biciclette, Italy 1948, George Eastman Museum. It was the US release version, but it did not look that good in a nitrate print. Possibly it was a dupe print, the definition and contrast were both limited.

Opening the evening session we had some more shorts. There was one minute of George Eastman in 1930, not exactly exhilarating. But then we had two animations in Technicolor by Oskar Fischinger., An Optical Poem, USA 1937 and Allegretto, USA 1943: both from the Library of Congress. In colour the animation was beautiful and this was  real treat.

Allegretto

The main evening feature was Powell and Pressburger’s The Tales of Hoffman, UK 1951, Library of Congress. This film was produced in that grey era just as nitrate was giving way to acetate. The print we viewed was mainly nitrate, but part of the penultimate reel and the final reel were on acetate. I did notice some difference but I could not have told you exactly where the changeover  occurred: it looked great on nitrate.

Saturday morning we kicked off with Road House , USA 1948, UCLA  Film and Television Archive. The film has quite an  amount of changes from high key to low key lighting and some location work late in the film. Both looked really fine in nitrate.

The afternoon bought another British classic in Technicolor, Blithe Spirit, UK 1945, Museum of Modern Art [from Martin Scorsese]. The Technicolor image looked really fine on nitrate.

The final film was a ‘surprise’, ‘Blind Date with Nitrate’. It was a silent, Ramona USA 1928. I had seen this film before, at the 2015 Giornate del Cinema Muto, so I could compare the acetate 35mm and nitrate. This screening was definitely an improvement. The interplay of light and shadow, the luminosity of certain shots and features, were all a real pleasure to see. The film had an odd history. it was a European release that ended up in Gosfilmofond archives. We also enjoyed a fine accompaniment by Phil Carli, a regular at Il Giornate del Cinema Muto.

Dolores del Rio as Ramona

Dolores del Rio as Ramona

The George Eastman House has already fixed the dates for 2017, May 5th, 6th, and 7th, The Saturday falls on the same date as the birthdays of Max Ophuls and Orson Welles. Maybe we could have a nitrate print of one or both of the films by the great filmmakers. The one disadvantage to the Eastman house approach is that they do not publish a programme of titles prior to the event. Paulo Cherchi Usai justified this in one of his addresses, remarking [among other points] that the Festival was about nitrate not particular films. But people are travelling from distant parts of the USA and farther afield. Moreover, they may well have seen quite a few of the titles previously on nitrate. So I am happy to have one or more surprises but I think they should reconsider their approach to publishing the programme.

A fuller report will appear in due course in Flickers Journal of the Vintage Film Circle.

Posted in Archival issues, British sound films, Festivals, Hollywood, Italian film, Silent Stars | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Sangue Bleu (Literally Blue Blood) / The Princess of Monte Cabello, Italy 1914.

Posted by keith1942 on February 17, 2015

Elena, Jacques and empty crib

Elena, Jacques and empty crib

This film was screened at the 2014 Il Cinema Ritrovato as part of a carbon arc projection in the cortile of the Cineteca. This was a splendid event and the light and shadow of the courtyard was reflected at times in the light and shadow of the film.

The three reel feature was produced by Celio films and featured their star Francesca Bertini. This was the penultimate film in a run of 25 that she made at the studio. Bertini, along with her rival Lyda Borelli [‘a [polite rivalry’] was the leading diva in Italian cinema.

The diva character ranged from a sort of femme fatale to the fallen and exploited woman. In this film Bertini is closest to the latter: a countess and mother who loses her secure social position, has to perform in the lowly and exploitative music hall and is used as a device for money by a wastrel and gambler. Unlike some of the other melodramas in this genre, the Countess is spared a final, tragic fate. The film, as is so often the case in this genre, is set in the worlds of the aristocracy and the haute bourgeoisie. It is also set in France rather than Italy: possibly for reasons of possible moral censorship – the film features a divorce and a tango, the latter at this time was seen as an immoral and suggestive dance.

At the start of the film the Countess Elena [given as a Princess in the Italian] is married with a young daughter, Lianne. The count’s ‘friendship; with another aristocratic woman arouses the jealousy of Elena. This leads to a legal separation with Elena awarded custody of her child. However, whilst innocent [not always the case in such films] Elena is accused on impropriety and loses the custody of her daughter. She now has to rely on the actor Jacques Wilson, who sees her not only as amour but also a source of income. It is in the third reel of the film that Elena is reduced to theatrical performances and the climatic sequence is set in a theatre.

The film was directed by Nino Oxilia, who previously worked as a scriptwriter for Celio. The staging and mise en scène is notable. As with Ma L’amor mio non muore the film uses long tableaux-like takes with deep focus. Whilst many of the scenes rely on the setting shown in a depth of field there is less deep staging than in the Borelli film. Sangue Bleu also makes use of more crowded scenes, as in the grand party at the villa of Count Cabello; and later in the impressive street scenes in Monte Carlo. The central focus is less on the main female protagonist, so that Bertini has fewer sequences where she dominates the frame than is the case with Borelli. There is a difference in their performance style as well. Bertini fills out her emotional scenes with gesture and movement, whereas Borelli is often in stasis or with little movement.

Like Ma L’amor mio non muore the film uses the grandiose sets of the bourgeois world. And it shares with that film a dramatic climax in a Theatre. Earlier we had seen an amateur charity performance with Elena in a variation on Madame Butterfly [the opera was still in the early days of it popularity]. The Theatre sequence also plays with the contrast between backstage and the auditorium: with a very similar shot to that in the Borelli film which reveals the expectant audience as the curtains are pulled open.

However Sangue Blue has distinctive use of light and shadow. There is one notable sequence where the Countess, already suffering from the travails in her marriage, walks along a twilight-lit great hall:

Elena appears/disappears, emerges/vanishes, struts like a sleepwalker to a close-up, held together by a mere alternation of shadow and light (from the side windows). (Michael Canosa in Il Ritrovato Catalogue).

The cinematography was by Giorgino Ricci, clearly a skilled craftsman in the use of camera and lighting.

Bertini was another theatrical actress who moved into film. She became a star first with Film d’Arte Italiana, then at the major studio of Cines. She moved to Celio in 1912. This was the period when the Italian Industry was building sumptuous purpose built cinemas and attracting more upmarket and affluent audiences. The films, like the diva cycle, reflected this with their common setting in affluent worlds and a style that was parallel to that of the bourgeois theatre and opera.

The director Nino Oxilia had also started out in theatre. He worked first as a scriptwriter than as a director. His films were noted for their sumptuous settings and the use of chiaroscuro. His career was cut short when died whilst serving in the Italian army on the Austrian front.

As well as offering an alternative to Borelli’s diva in Ma L’amor mio non muore Bertini’s feature was also influenced by the Danish film Afgrunden (1910) directed by Urban Gad. Bertini recalled that during the production of Sangue Blue.

They had me watch The Abyss with Asta Nielsen. The film shocked me. (Michele Canosa quoting from Bertini su Bertini, 2003).

Afgrunden was the most notable of the early films starring Asta Nielsen. She soon moved to the German film industry where she became a major European star. She was probably the first major diva persona in European film.

The print screened in Bologna was from the EYE Filmmuseum in the Netherlands. Restored to its full glory, the print enjoyed the original tinting used in 1914, and there was a fine musical accompaniment by Daniele Furlati. The Cineteca Bologna, together with Eye, has now produced a DVD version of this film.

Posted in Italian film | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

My Love is Immortal! / Ma L’amor mio non muore!, Italy 1913.

Posted by keith1942 on January 5, 2015

My Love

This is a classic film from early Italian cinema. I saw the film for the first time at the 1993 Giornate del Cinema Muto: my first visit to this great festival. The film was screened in a programme that effectively featured suffering heroines. Already we had watched Victor Sjöström’s Ingeborg Holm and D. W. Griffith’s The Mothering Heart, both also from 1913. The excess of emotion this occasioned led to me having a long late evening walk round the town for catharsis. I have since seen the film at Il Cinema Ritrovato and in 2013 the Bologna Archive produced a DVD of a restored version of the film.

The film is generally reckoned to have been the start of a long line of ‘diva’ films. Angela Dalle Vacche writes in The Diva Film (In The Italian Cinema Book, edited by Peter Bondanella, 20144).

In the early Italian film industry, ‘diva’ meant female star in the ‘long’ feature film. The latter was approximately sixty minutes long, four reels, with some close-ups for the film star or diva, artificial lighting, a fairly static camera and many-layered compositions in depth. A mixture of the Catholic mater dolorosa, of the Northern European femme fatale in literature and in painting and of the new woman of modernity, the Italian diva would move from the roles of prostitute to socialite, or from rags to riches in the very same melodrama, so combining stereotypes of femininity from both the upper and lower classes.

The film only offers some of the many characteristics of the diva. It appears to start off as a spy story, a popular genre of the period. Moise Stahr steals secret plans in the keeping of Elsa’s father, a colonel in the Wallenstein military. Her father commits suicide and Elsa is forced into exile. She achieves economic independence by becoming a successful theatrical diva: however, she is lonely and unhappy because of her loss. She meets Prince Maximilian who has to sojourn in the coastal resort for his health. Their romance leads to tragic results. So Elsa’s character suffers changing roles and, finally, the melodramatic ending that is common in diva films.

The film also adheres to the style described an Angela Dalle Vache. What struck me at the first viewing was the way that the film was dominated by long takes on a static camera whilst the characters moved in different layers of depth across the sumptuous settings. My friend Kim, who was at this screening, explained that the filmmakers of the period imported aspects of the grand style in Italian theatre and opera, hoping this to attract more affluent middle class members into their audiences.

Thus an early setting is the drawing room in the house of Elsa and her father. However there is a dining area at the back of the set and a study equally deep in the set. For much of the sequence we follow the characters, with often a pair in the foreground and a couple in the background, all involved in action. There are occasional mid-shots but predominately we sit and watch rather as if positioned before a theatrical proscenium. The film is composed predominately of long shots, in long takes. In scenes set in the theatre later in the film Elsa is seen onstage prior to a new act in what is effectively a mid-shot: the curtains part and we now have a long shot of star, audience and auditorium.

These are broken up by the title cards. I did wonder if the action in question was filmed in a complete take with the title card inserted later: some of these shots last several minutes. There are occasional mid-shots for closer into dramatic action and close-ups proper are reserved almost entirely for the star. There is very little camera movement, only an occasional pan across a set.

The film uses chiaroscuro lighting at certain points for dramatic effect, but mainly there is high key lighting, both for interiors and exteriors. One notable shot is of Elsa onstage, with the camera set at the back of the Prince’s box, with chiaroscuro in the foreground and high key lighting in the background. The sets and props fulfil important functions in the drama. I was particularly struck by the use of a three-part mirror in Elsa’s dressing room at the Theatre. This is cleverly used to fill out the action, at one point we see the farewell between Elsa and Maximilian only in the mirror.

The acting by Lyda Borelli as Elsa is what stands out in the film. The film displays the tendency to very emphatic acting common to this period: this works fairly well due to the composition in long shot. Even so, I found Borelli the most convincing member of the cast. She has a number of very fine scenes which rely on her actions and mime to convey the subtleties of the story. The title cards tend to give a general over-view of the action, occasionally they supply dialogue: thus early on at the point of the theft:

My love title

One memorable scene has Elsa [in mid-shot] at a station writing a letter to Maximilian, the emotion and content all communicated through Borelli’s expression and movements.

This was Borelli’s first foray into film. The Ritrovato catalogue offered some background on this.

In 1913, Lyda Borelli had reached the apex of her theatrical career. Performing in Italy’s most famous theatres, she ap­peared in plays by Victorien Sardou, Henry Bataille, Georges Ohnet, the very repertory that would soon become the backbone of diva cinema. Borelli’s most acclaimed per­formance was in Oscar Wilde’s Salome, which had its Italian premiere at the Teatro Valle on 10 March 1909. In her Salome costume, Borelli was portrayed by painter Cesare Tallone and in a photographic se­ries by Emilio Sommariva: popularised by postcards, these representations of Borelli’s theatrical career fuelled the public imagination and showed decisive for the construction of her iconic image in her first feature, Ma I’amor mio non muore!. Pro­duced by the Turin-based company Gloria Film and directed by Mario Caserini, the film was specifically written for her. While the plot deals with espionage and love, the second part is set in a world very close to Borelli – the stage. Her two successful performances, Zaza and Salome, reappear here. … Ma L’amor mio non muore! was an international success and turned Borelli into a film star. It also started a new phenomenon: the Italian diva-film. But this phenomenon didn’t come out of the blue; it incorporates the legacy of the pictorial, photographic and theatrical cul­ture of the Italian early twentieth century.  Ivo Blom.

Ironically it seems that one of Borelli’s finest attributes was her speaking voice, an aspect of her performance denied to the audiences for her films, without dialogue. Even so, she and the film are extremely expressive. And the opulent sets offer a rich scenic world for popular consumption.

The Giornate screening used a 35mm print from the Cineteca Italiana. It ran for 78 minutes at 16 fps. And one of the talented regulars at the Festival, Gabriel Thibaudeau, provided accompaniment on the piano.  The recent Ritrovato screening used a DCP transfer with recorded music track: the transfer was at silent fps rate and the version seems to have been a couple of minutes longer at 80 minutes. The DVD has a choice of musical accompaniments plus a gallery of photographs, including those referred to by Ivo Blom.

MA L’AMOR MIO NON MUORE! [Alternative title Everlasting Love], Italia, 1913. Director: Mario Caserini. Story: Emiliano Bonetti, Cinematography: Angelo Scalenghe.

Cast: Lyda Borelll (Elsa Holbein), Mario Bonnard (Prince Maximilian di Wallenstein), Camillo de Riso (Impresario Schaudard), Maria Caserinl (Gran Duchess di Wallenstein), Gianpaolo Rosmino (Moise Stahr). Prod: Film Artistica “Gloria”

DCP.  Black and white. Italian intertitles. Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna, Museo Nazlonale del Cinema e Fondazione Cineteca Italiana • Restored m 2013 at L’lmmagine Ritrovata laboratory

 

Posted in Early cinemas, Italian film | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

Carbon Arc Screenings

Posted by keith1942 on July 24, 2014

 

Carbon arc

One of the treats introduced at Il Cinema Ritrovato in 2013 was a screening in the Piazetta Pier Paolo Pasolini using a 1930s projector with carbon arc illumination. At one time this technology was the basis of nearly all cinema projection. The sparks jump between carbon rods and produce one of the brightest illuminations in cinema. I spoke to one projectionist who had suffered a slight eye flaw from their brightness. The technology required projectionists to check and maintain the gap between rods – and rods burnt ou relatively quickly. But the illumination is not only bright but produces an image that is fairly faithful to the original, including the distinctive colour palette.

The Ritrovato screenings start about 10 p.m. and the audience can enjoy the image, the atmosphere and the balmy evenings of summer. This year’s were packed, with other members standing round in the shadows. The screen is framed between trees and the projector not only illuminates this screening but also sends a small beam vertically up above the projector. There is a moment of anticipation as the projector is ‘fired up’ and then the audience swivels from looking behind to looking in front as the film image is revealed.

On the Wednesday evening we had La Princesse Mandane (1928), part of a retrospective of films directed by Germaine Dulac. The film was commercially funded and adapted from a novel by Pierre Benoit. Dulac, of course, is really thought of as an avant-garde filmmaker and an early example of a director who could be labelled ‘feminist’. I suspect it was the disparity between these two forms that made the film less than effective for me. It is well produced and there are some imaginative scenes, especially in a long dream sequence. However, this dream world runs for over 50 minutes of the films 74 minutes running time. I found it padded out with sequences that neither forwarded the narrative nor developed the characters. The Catalogue comments that “The image of the princess – the mise en scène of her femininity – is the object of a masculine fantasy….”

Which is accurate. But this did not seem to generate much critical interrogation of such a ‘male gaze’. Still this was a wonderful way to watch the film. And there was an excellent accompaniment at the piano by Stephen Horne, who added a few other instruments in his inimitable manner.

The Thursday evening saw us back in the courtyard for Sangue Bleu (1914), part of a programme of films directed by Nino Oxilia. But the focus of the film was the silent star and diva Francesca Bertini. She is certainly one of the three major artists of the Italian diva era. Here she was working for Celio Film, but she went on to produce her own films. As is the case in diva films, the mise en scène privileges the star, but also provides an opulent and dramatic range of settings as she emotes, most frequently in the tragic mode. The Catalogue comments that

“Elena (Bertini) appears / disappears, emerges / vanishes, struts like a sleepwalker to a close-up, held together by a mere alternation of shadow and light…”

The plot, which is fairly conventional has an aristocratic wife and mother dumped by her husband and then misused and abused by a series of male characters. Meanwhile the princess struggles to retain and care for her daughter. This is great, over-the-top melodrama, which works partly because of the presence of Bertini. The accompaniment by Daniele Furiati matched the onscreen drama. And the ambience of the occasion was magical.

 

Posted in French film 1920s, Italian film, Silent technology | Leave a Comment »

Rotaie

Posted by keith1942 on December 18, 2010

Rotaie. (Wheels).

S. A. C. I. A. / Nero-film, Italy / Denmark, 1929. 

Director: Mario Camerini, also scenario.  Story, Corrado D’Erico.

35mm, Italian Intertitles with translation.

 

The girl, Käthe von Nagy – The Girl; Maurizio D’Ancora – The Boy [Giorgio]; Daniele Crespi – The Seducer, Jacques Mercier;  

The film was produced in both silent and sound versions, and there was also a titled version with a musical soundtrack. The Giornate del Cinema Muto screened the silent version with a live musical accompaniment.

 

The film has a splendid opening as a rear-view camera tracks behind a couple entering a hotel late at night. The camera [and audience] follows the couple as they almost wordlessly check in and go to a room. \We learn that family opposition blights their love and their actions imply death together. The chance passing of a train and its vibrations cause the glass with the fatal tablet to fall to the floor. The doomed spell is broken.

The couple now set off on an odyssey. Another chance event, a man dropping a wallet at the central railway station, provides the wherewithal for their train journey to the sea and the Riviera. Here is the film becomes fairly predictable as The Boy first wins and then loses at the Casino: he is then tempted to steal another’s winnings to settle his bills. Meanwhile a rich seducer targets The Girl. Chance, or more likely fate, once more intervenes, and the seducer refrains. Reconciled the couple spend the night on a park bench.

Once more penniless the young couple takes another train journey back to the city: this time among the workers and peasants rather than in a sleeping car. At the film’s end The Boy is working in a factory. The Girl meets him at the gate and her knitting suggests that a baby will turn them into a family. A montage of shots of trains, factory building, factory chimneys, turbines and workers accompany this ending.

After the film there a discussion about how far the film’s ending should be seen as an expression of the Fascist values dominant in 1920s Italy. The film’s ending does integrate the couple into the world of work: a central notion in Italian Fascism. It also sets up a nuclear family, another institution encouraged under fascism.

However, the notion of work as central to integration into society is a rather generalised idea. And the potential family appears a rather individualised one: there is no sign, for example, of the Fascist social institution, Dopolavoro. The central emphasis in Italian Fascism was on the role of conflict and importance of the dominance of the State. Two slogans of the Party were – “War is to Man as Motherhood is to Woman” and “Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State”. Neither of these aspects is overtly present in the film. [Marco Bellocchio’s portrait Vincere (2009) powerfully emphasises these aspects]. 

Rather I felt the film was an example of a melodrama which presents the integration of the main characters into the general value system. It is extremely well done and well worth seeing.

 

Posted in Italian film | Leave a Comment »